Kurt Yost wrapping up career as head of NICB

Kurt Yost

Kurt Yost was 16 years old when he first encountered the ethos of the community banker. Yost had needed to pay a debt but was completely out of checks; as he explained his dilemma, his banker told Yost to write an IOU and he’d give him the money. “But don’t tell anybody,” Yost recalled the banker saying.

That banker was no fool. The Yost family owned a lumberyard and a ready-mix operation in Milford, Neb., at that time. Yost Bros. Lumber was a capital-intensive business that required a responsive banker and a lot of loans. Still, the ease with which the banker responded to a teenager in a jam was edifying for Yost, president and CEO of the Nebraska Independent Community Bankers who is set to retire at the end of this year. “I became a believer in community banking because of my family.”

That belief served Yost well through 34 years of advocacy that commenced during contentious times and concludes as the industry grapples with the rapid pace of change.

Road to advocacy

Yost hadn’t anticipated a career in bank advocacy as a young man but neither did he feel called to succeed his father in the lumber trade. After graduating from Kearney College and completing active duty with the Army Reserves, Yost took a marketing job with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a starter job he kept five years for the best of reasons: “I enjoyed it.”

When twin tragedies struck, claiming his sister’s life and shortly thereafter his mother’s, Yost was forced to reevaluate his future with the family business. His dad had lost interest in the company and asked Yost to move back and take over. “Let’s think about this,” Yost told him. Before he came to a decision, a buyer emerged and Everett B. Yost sold the business. Lumber remained part of Yost’s professional identity, however, as an opportunity with the Nebraska Lumbermen’s Association emerged almost in tandem. In 1975, Yost registered as a lobbyist and set to work advocating for the lumber industry. Nine years later Jim Bohart, Yost’s brother in the Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity, who happened to work at the old Harvard State Bank, called Yost.

“You’ve got to apply for this new job,” Bohart said.

“What job? I have a job.”

“It’s the Nebraska Independent Bankers Association.”

Yost responded the only way he could: “Never heard of them.”

But he quickly studied up and decided to “toss in my hat,” as he put it.

Filling a need

The roots of the independent banking movement in Nebraska trace to 1980, when bankers were facing structural changes to their industry, in particular branch banking and multi-bank holding companies. Except for the largest banks, most bankers in the state opposed these changes.

In 1981, fourteen bankers, including John Lauritzen, Clark Caley, Alan Dunlap and Bud Gerhart, formed the Nebraska Independent Bankers Association (the name changed in 2000 to the Nebraska Independent Community Bankers) so rural banks could have a voice at the capitol. To that end, NIBA contracted with Jim Moylan, an Omaha attorney, for lobbying services. The association didn’t yet have an office or employees. Business was run “out of [Moylan’s] desk drawer,” quipped Bob Fricke of Farmers & Merchants Bank of Ashland, a longtime NICB member.

The battle over multi-bank holding companies was especially contentious, pitting small-town bankers against their big-city counterparts. Yet First National Bank of Omaha aligned with the independents on this issue, at least initially. In 1983, however, First National reversed course; at the capitol, a bank spokesperson testified that First National would no longer oppose legislation allowing multi-bank holding companies. When asked if the bank would support a bill that would implement the change, the spokesperson said, “yes.” That same year, the fledgling association decided to open an office and hire a full-time executive/lobbyist.

Yost in 1984

Fricke remembered Yost as very enthusiastic about the opportunity. “You could tell he had the personality for the job,” Fricke said. With 420 banks in the state and the ag industry in full crisis, NIBA needed a personality to carry its message to lawmakers.

Yost recalled being offered the job: “Harold Porter from Chester, Neb., this little bald man in a brown suit with wire-rimmed glasses perched halfway down his nose, said, ‘Now, Mr. Yost. We’re hiring you to run this association because we don’t have time. We have to pay attention to our banks.’ Then he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Don’t steal from us!’”

Yost’s first day on the job was March 1, 1984. After leasing an office in the same building where he works today, Yost got to work on the issues. And they were numerous, including allowing branch banking by acquisition, important to rural communities losing their banks during the ag crisis. Roughly 50 banks in Nebraska disappeared during the ag crisis.

Yost later turned his attention to interstate banking/interstate branching, how much control the state had over deposits, and stopping the state’s double taxation on S corp banks. Tensions spiked as the big banks sent whole teams of lobbyists to spar against Yost, an army of one. “I remember standing in the rotunda of the capitol and one of the lobbyists from the big banks walks past me and says, ‘Damn you Yost, you are costing us a fortune.’ And I said, ‘I’m not trying to cost you anything. I’ve been hired to represent community banks and I’m trying to do my best for them.’”

The opposite of strong-arming

If you have a strong arm, you can throw a football from outside the NICB headquarters and hit the state capitol. The advantage of proximity seems obvious until I spy Yost waiting outside the door ready to welcome me to Lincoln. Thirty minutes into my interview I have a better understanding of Yost’s gifts and no longer believe the distance he must walk to find a lawmaker when he needs to tell the story of community banking is relevant. Yost has stories to tell and opinions to share, including his thoughts on how the political climate has changed in recent years. He has no interest in seeking elected office after leaving NICB (“They can’t pay me enough to put up with the bullshit,” he said.) and remains sanguine on community banking — an industry to which he’s given his prime. Ultimately, it’s a people business.

“He knows everybody,” Fricke explained. “He knows everything about you and has an incredible mind for remembering the details about your life. He knows most of the bankers in the state by sight and he probably also knows the names of their spouses and their children.”

Yost has the people skills to engender friendships — and trust. And Yost doesn’t reserve his people skills for bankers. “Many of Nebraska’s U.S. senators and representatives started their careers in Lincoln,” Fricke said. The association has no doubt benefitted from his people skills, he added.

“I knew he was respected in the industry,” said Mark Hesser, president and CEO of Pinnacle Bancorp, Lincoln. “He has a great relationship with every senator and has the ability to converse with them respectfully.”

Yost cites his greatest accomplishment at NICB as creating an environment that members want to support, along with providing value for members. NICB has 75 member banks out of a field of 173, which is less than half the number of banks from when his career began. Size isn’t predictive of impact, however. NICB members are engaged in advocacy and three of his past chairs have gone on to lead the Independent Community Bankers of America: Jeff Gerhart of Newman Grove, Tom Olson of Lisco, and Bill McQuillan of Greeley.  

“I have the luxury of running this association like a family,” Yost said, his eyes glistening. “They are the economic engine; they make things happen.” It’s the message he carried across the street for more than three decades.

Fricke called Yost the association’s “social chairman.” Wherever a group of NICB bankers gather, Yost and his wife Marcia will open a “home office” or hospitality suite where everyone is welcome to hang out. “He engages as many members as possible,” Fricke said. “He’s been so active and social; he knows how to find the right people to get things done.”

One of those people is Tracy Pickering, Yost’s office manager and event planner for 31 of the 34 years Yost has been at the helm. With Pickering in place and Yost willing to work the offices across the street part-time for at least another year, the executive committee felt confident it could successfully shepherd the association through a leadership transition rather than considering a merger with the Nebraska Bankers Association. Association mergers occurred in Wisconsin and Indiana in 2015 and 2016, respectively. “If the independent bank loses its seat at the table, it’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’ do we go away?” Yost said.

The hiring of Eric Hallman as Yost’s successor tables that question for now.

Over the years, many of Yost’s peers became close friends: Al Olson from Minnesota, Bob Wingert from Illinois, Chris Williston from Texas, Jerry Walker from New Mexico, and George Beattie from right there in Lincoln. All but one have come to the place in their careers where he now stands.

Yost is the elder statesman advocating for an evolving industry. The future of banking is digital and so is the future of the banking association. Yost recognizes this and does not apologize for his disinterest in technology. “I’m no fool,” he said. “The association needs to go on and grow.”